It was never my plan to have a baby while living hundreds of miles from my family, therefore completely destroying any possibility of having nearby family support.
Before we had a child, I imagined that every other aspect of our lives would have miraculously fallen into place. My husband and I would return home, buy a cheap yet beautiful country house, and acquire fluffy chickens and rabbits to wander picturesquely in the grounds. Best of all, we’d have free childcare at the perfect distance (not too far and not too close).
Instead, we were living in a one-bedroom apartment in London when our daughter arrived. Our families were in Scotland, and we had no support network around us. Friends, sure — but we were the first to have a baby, and I didn’t feel as if our pre-child pub drinks after work had smoothed the way for emergency baby vomit analysis on a 3am video call.
When my daughter was born, I felt like the only woman in the world without her mum there to dispense emergency cups of tea.
Of course, London is full of people from all over the world raising kids far away from their own families. And quarantine and social distancing orders now mean that more of us than ever are facing life as new parents without support from extended family.
My isolation as a new mum was somewhat self-inflicted. My parents wanted to come and meet the new baby as soon as they were welcome. But all the books I’d been reading had persuaded me that the first couple of weeks after childbirth should be sacred bonding time for our new little family. (Yes, I look back now on those early days and laugh hollowly at my naivety.)
The reality of becoming a mother was both more wonderful and more terrible than I had imagined.
Here’s what I learned about raising a newborn without nearby family support.
Look, you’ve already lost most of your dignity. You’ve spent the last few days with your innards being goggled at by all and sundry. Now’s not the time to try to hang on to your pride. Let people supply you with home-cooked meals. Let them send you chocolate, flowers, and vouchers for ready-meals. If visitors are possible, ask them to clean the bathroom.
After realizing that I was bonding with my bed more than my baby or husband, my parents were finally permitted to come and help. I look back fondly now on the hours I spent on the sofa smelling my baby’s hair, as they scrubbed away at my kitchen counters.
Recognize that the situation you’re in is not normal.
Throughout human history, we’ve lived in tribes, in tight-knit communities, in intergenerational homes. Bringing a baby home with just your partner for support is hard. Add to that the expectation that you will get up and go on running the house in the same way as before, and it becomes impossible.
Acknowledging how difficult something is might not make any practical difference, but it can be a gigantic relief.
One odd thing about being a parent is that amongst all the angst, misery, joy, and love, there’s also a fuck load of boredom. Seeing nobody except your partner and that small blob who barely seems to count as a person exacerbates this. Use your time trapped under a sleeping child wisely. Watch all the shows. Listen to all the podcasts. Do it now, while they can’t understand swearing. And use your phone’s camera; I have millions of videos and photos cataloging my baby’s every sneeze, grunt, and smile. And it still doesn’t feel like enough. Send them to your family so they too can coo over that video of her spitting up on your shoulder.
Let go of all your expectations.
Make the most of the lack of visitors by letting your home subside into decline. Don’t agonize over your greasy hair or the fact you’ve lived off cold pizza for three days. Just accept that your house and person will be in a minor state of squalor for the next several years and focus on keeping your baby alive.
There’s no mum to hold you while you weep, but there are people who will listen.
Before becoming a parent, I was already the sort of person who cries often and enthusiastically. Commercials featuring abandoned animals could ruin an entire evening. The tears came in full force in that first postpartum week, as I wept, wailed, sobbed, and generally lost my shit. I still don’t dare look back at my messages from that time, as I fear they would be too raw and desperate to face. But the replies I got from friends and family kept me going.
I cried on the phone to many a breastfeeding counsellor and remembering the kindness I received from those women still makes me tear up. There’s no substitute for a hug from somebody who loves you, but I got some amazing virtual support. Find your community, on messaging apps or parenting groups online, and it will get you through when family support can’t.
Without a babysitter, you have to make your own breaks.
Whatever self-care means to you, do it every day. Take an extra five minutes in the shower. Wear headphones and blast your favorite song while you close your eyes and imagine you’re in a club, having a really trippy night. Go window shopping with the pram, or gaze at tree branches against the sky. Put the baby in a sling and make brownies. The key is to choose one tiny thing which will make you happy and inhabit the fuck out of that moment. It sounds insane, but when you have no support, survival becomes an art-form.
Find the positives.
It sucks to do this alone. But my initial inclination to avoid guests for a short time wasn’t entirely misguided. Lack of support forces you to work everything out by yourself. It’s harder, but it’s also more empowering. When our baby was born, we didn’t know when my husband’s family would be able to meet her. Because of cancer treatment, it wasn’t possible for them to travel to us. We braved the plane to go to them when she was a little over two months, and that first meeting was wonderful to experience.
Once again, it’s been months since my family has seen my daughter as lockdown in our country has kept us apart.
I watch her learning and growing with every day that passes, and I mourn everything her grandparents are missing. Yet I know that it will be all the sweeter when we’re finally reunited.
And I’m keeping a mental tally of all the babysitting hours I’m accumulating….
Are you raising your family far away from your support system?
Let us know what your experience is like in the comments.